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Texas voter ID law's fate could hang on details

Few dispute that a huge number of Texans lack the ID needed to vote. The fate of the state's ID law could hinge on just how hard it is to get one.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Democracy. Equality. Racial justice. The struggle for voting rights has long been about concepts that go to the heart of the American ideal.

But in a sleepy federal courtroom here on the Gulf Coast, access to the ballot for hundreds of thousands of Texans could turn on some far less high-blown concepts: bus schedules, identification cards -- and dollars and cents.

As the challengers to Texas's strict voter ID law prepared to rest their case, they presented more evidence Monday in support of the key claims they laid out last week: that a massive number of Texans lack an ID that complies with the law; that blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to lack ID; and that getting an ID can be onerous, especially for the poor.

The plaintiffs -- represented by a team of over a dozen lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department, civil and voting rights groups, and private law firms -- will wrap up Tuesday. 

The case is one of several currently underway that could have major implications both for access to the ballot this fall, and for the the ongoing state of the law protecting the right to vote. Wisconsin's and Arkansas's voter ID laws, Ohio's cuts to early voting, and North Carolina's sweeping voting law are all being challenged in court.

Defending the ID measure, lawyers for Texas sought to cast doubt on the credibility of some expert witnesses, but offered little that undermined the broad thrust of the challengers' case. They said at the close of proceedings Monday that they planned to offer just two witnesses, with their presentation lasting only around a day and half.  

The law's opponents suggested privately that Texas's laissez-faire approach shows the weakness of its defense. But the state may be relying on a basic reality: Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the burden of proof is on the challengers to show that the ID law will stop Texas's racial minorities from voting. 

Texas's voter ID law, passed in 2011, was struck down the following year by a federal court, which ruled that it violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Under Section 5, Texas and other covered areas had to show that their election laws didn't disproportionately affect racial minorities before they could go into effect. In 2013, the Supreme Court neutered Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder, and hours later, Texas announced that its ID law was back in force.

It's now being challenged under Section 2 of the VRA, which was unaffected by Shelby. But under Section 2, the onus is on the law's challengers to show not just that it hits minorities hardest, but that it does so because of a history of racial discrimination. That's a relatively high bar to meet—though it's one that voting rights advocates have met lately, at least for now, in the Wisconsin and Ohio cases.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, did little to tip her hand. But lawyers for the plaintiffs said they took her obvious engagement and interest—she took frequent notes, and several times interjected to ask witnesses to clarify points—as a promising sign.

There's not much dispute that a huge number of Texans currently don't have ID—one estimate introduced by the challengers last week put it at 1.2 million eligible voters. So much of the plaintiffs' case Monday was aimed instead at demonstrating the burdens—financial and otherwise—of getting an ID.

Daniel Chatman, an urban planning expert at the University of California, Berkeley, testified that based on a detailed study he conducted, 11% of Texas's African-Americans would face a 90-minute roundtrip journey to the nearest ID-issuing office. For whites, the figure was just 3.3%. The difference, said Chatman, is almost entirely due to different rates of car ownership, since having to use public transportation adds significantly to the journey time.

A lawyer for Texas suggested at one point during cross-examination that Chatman's study was flawed because he didn't consider that some people without access to a car might still have a bike.

Separately, Kevin Jewell, a veteran Texas lawyer appearing as a witness, said he'd calculated that for one low-income woman, getting the underlying documents needed for a state ID card would cost $63.45—over a third of her monthly income. 

"The budgets these individuals have are constrained," said Jewell. "That means they have to make a choice that many Texans don’t have to: They have to choose between using their money to buy an ID or something else that may be important to them.”

The challengers also continued to attack the main rationale Texas has offered for the ID law: that it's needed to stop fraud. Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has conducted perhaps the closest analysis of voter fraud claims, testified that voter impersonation fraud—the only kind of fraud that the ID might stop—is vanishingly rare.

Minnite said there have been just four such cases in Texas since 2000—and it's not clear that any of them would have been prevented by the ID law.

At times, lawyers for Texas seemed disorganized or disengaged. Reed Clay sought to use a U.S. Congressional report to discredit Project Vote, a voter registration group with whom Minnite has been associated in the past, but was unable to find the relevant portion, and gave up. 

Later, John B. Scott seemed to think better of a line of questioning about an expert witness's past clients, and abruptly abandoned it, triggering laughter in the courtroom—and even a faint smile from Judge Gonzales Ramos.